Missional. It’s certainly not a new word. It came into vogue in the early part of the 21st century and has been added to the ever-growing repertoire of “Christianese” along with “traveling mercies,” “hedge of protection,” and the Southern favorite, “bless your heart.” What many have noted before is the difficulty in defining the word missional. Alan Hirsch, a thought leader in the missional church movement, wrote an excellent article in Christianity Today over a decade ago explaining the ambiguity surrounding the word. Hirsch summed up his view with this description: “[Being missional] applies to the whole life of every believer. Every disciple is to be an agent of the kingdom of God, and every disciple is to carry the mission of God into every sphere of life.”1

I love that definition. Unfortunately, there are many who would agree with this definition yet use it in ways that do not seem to be in line with what Hirsch means. In churches and ministries that claim to be missional, it is now common to hear statements such as “Let’s change the world.” Wanting to change the world is not a problem in itself, but an enormous emphasis is placed on acquiring bigger platforms while the daily, ordinary tasks of God’s mission are forgotten.

A good example of this dissonance can be observed in Mike Cosper’s insanely popular podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Before its collapse, Mars Hill Church was, by most accounts, known as a missional community. Mark Driscoll, the former pastor and co-founder of Mars Hill, used the word to describe the church often. If you’ve listened to the podcast, or if you followed the Mars Hill saga during the height of its evangelical fame, you probably noticed that the mindset at Mars Hill shifted. Driscoll was willing to grow the church at any cost – by changing the structure of the church, investing more time and money in digital media to reach people far from a Mars Hill campus, increasing his own platform and more. The message seemed clear; Mars Hill seemed to be saying “The world needs us.”

This mantra is certainly the goal that many young men and women have been fed as they’ve entered into vocational ministry. In fact, at the small, Christian college I graduated from, it was often emphasized, whether implicitly or explicitly, that ‘revival’ meant change on a national or global scale, and we students were the solution. And if I am honest, that felt exciting! It felt like my role was something bigger than myself.

As I entered ministry, I felt pressure to change the world. In turn, that led to me placing that same pressure on my family, on the staff I oversaw and upon the church I had been called to lead. As I observed these large ministries with a seemingly huge global impact, changing the world felt possible. However, I pastor a church of fewer than 200 people in the desert of the Inland Empire (IE) in Southern California. I serve in Perris, California, a community of just under 80,000 people along Interstate 215. It’s one of those communities that even those in other parts of the IE seem to snub – I’ve met plenty in the IE who didn’t even know there was such a place as Perris.

So, how was I going to change the world from Perris? I didn’t know, but I was going to do it, “bless God,” or die trying. Or I would find another ministry in a couple of years that would give me more of a platform to do so.

This mentality was certainly problematic.

I viewed the very people I was called to love, serve, and shepherd as projects to be worked on and ultimately objects to advance my platform. They were projects that I saw as an opportunity to turn into missional warriors joining me in my noble endeavor to ‘change the world.’ Yet, over the past couple of years, God has brought people and resources into my life that have drastically helped me shift my paradigm of what it means to be missional and how to truly ‘change the world.’

First, I was given a book written by Zack Eswine, a pastor in the Midwest, titled The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through A Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus. One comment from Eswine is especially worth noting:

“As you enter ministry, you will be tempted to orient your desires toward doing large things in famous ways as fast and as efficiently as you can. But take note. A crossroads waits for you. Jesus is that crossroads. Because almost anything in life that truly matters will require you to do small, mostly overlooked things, over a long period of time with him. The pastoral vocation, because it focuses on helping people cultivate what truly matters, is, therefore, no exception.”2

Eugene Peterson is another formational figure whose writings have challenged many ministers with a radically ordinary view of the pastoral vocation. He said something similar to Eswine in his memoir, The Pastor:

“Would I trade my pastoral birthright for the mess of pottage that provided the immediate satisfaction of affirmation and discernible results? Or would I be willing to live in the ambiguities of a congregation in which growth is mostly slow & mostly (at least for long stretches of time) invisible?” 3

These writings were especially eye-opening as I was being introduced to historical theology at Gateway Seminary. I began to be exposed to a particularly new and fascinating world of patristic history and delved into the writings of the early church fathers – Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Chrysostom and many more. I took a course one semester on patristic theology and I learned something valuable regarding the missional mindset.

The church fathers have a global, world-changing effect through their writings and ministry. Yet, these men did not seem to have the same modern definition of being missional. For instance, one of the more famous works of that period is Gregory the Great’s The Book of Pastoral Rule. As with many of the other seminal works of that era, Gregory’s manual of pastoral wisdom and leadership was written from one pastor to another in response to a question.

Was it missional for Gregory to spend so much of his precious time writing this one letter to one person when he could have used his influential position to reach thousands by speaking at national conferences? Wouldn’t it have been more prudent for him to be just a bit less specific in his 185-page letter in order to achieve wider appeal? Obviously, I don’t think so. At least that’s the conclusion I can’t seem to escape no matter how hard I try. Yes, many modern evangelical celebrities technically had a wider reach at the height of their fame than many of the early church fathers had during their lives. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, who has made a greater impact on the church? Who has accomplished greater advances for the Kingdom of God? Who was more missional?

This is what God has been teaching me, a young pastor often tempted to aspire to ‘greater things,’ or at least more than the mundanity of being a little-known pastor laboring at a little-known church in a little-known town with a handful of little-known people. What I’m learning more and more each day is that this is the important work. Now, I’d like to be clear – the desire for a world stage is still a major temptation. Except for a supernatural work of the Spirit, it is something I will probably struggle with until this life is over. Yet God has allowed me to realize the reality of world-changing work. In the words of my patristic theology professor, Dr. Shawn Wilhite, “When it comes to the world and/or the national stage, don’t seek to be widely known. Rather, expect and be content with obscurity. Instead, seek to be deeply and widely known in the place God has called you to serve.” While we may never see it in this life and while no one may ever talk about our ministries this side of heaven, I believe this is what it looks like to be truly missional. In the words of the song by Josh Wilson that has become my anthem:

It’s a mama singing songs about the Lord
It’s a daddy spending family time the world says he cannot afford
These simple moments change the world
It’s a pastor at a tiny little church
40 years of loving on the broken and the hurt
These simple moments change the world
Dream small
Don’t buy the lie you’ve got to do it all
Just let Jesus use you where you are
One day at a time
Live well
Loving God and others as yourself
Find little ways where only you can help
With His great love
A tiny rock can make a giant fall
Yeah five loaves and two fish can feed them all
So dream small.4

1 Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2008/fall/17.20.html

2 Eswine, Zack. The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus. Crossway: Wheaton, IL. 2015.

3 Peterson, Eugene. The Pastor: A Memoir. HarperOne: New York, NY. 2011.

4 ”Dream Small” by Josh Wilson.

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